One may assume that the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh was the Church of England putting on its best display. The splendour and pageantry of the day, organised by the Duke while alive, easily eclipsed the offerings from the official ecclesiastics.
Since I have often said that the national churches are failing the UK nations, it is worth considering what the nations and the watching world witnessed.
Preamble and commentary
In the televised preamble to the service, the BBC’s Huw Edwards discussed the Duke of Edinburgh’s Christian faith with the former Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu. Dr Sentamu recalled the Duke of Edinburgh’s comment to him in 1992, the royal annus horribilis, quoting Ps 93:4 in the English Standard Version. Sentamu commented to the Duke that this biblical verse was on an inscription on a large stone on Holy Island with an addendum “God is greater than all our troubles”, which brought a smile to the Duke’s face. Sentamu said that the Duke was familiar with the Bible and would correct misquotations, the more poignant as Sentanu wrongly cited the quotation to Huw Edwards as Ps 94:3. Then Sentamu went on to quote “the blessed John Newman“, the Roman Catholic cardinal’s prayer and stated that the Duke thought that services should be short, “not long church”, with a short sermon before holy communion.
The service began with the singing of four passages from the King James Version of the Bible Jn 11:25-26, Job 19:25-27, 1Tim 6:7 and Job 1:21. The Dean of Windsor then gave The Bidding: “We are here today in St George’s Chapel to commit into the hands of God the soul of his servant Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.” However, 1. the majority of those watching were not “in St George’s Chapel” and 2. no man can commit the soul of another person into the hands of God. Besides, 3. the Duke’s soul had already returned to God eight days earlier. The focus was wrong.
This was followed by the Mariners’ Hymn “Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm doth bind the restless wave, … O hear us when we cry to thee, For those in peril on the sea.” The Dean then read from Ecclesiasticus 43:11-26, chosen by the Duke probably because of its description of the grandeur of nature, but mistakenly described by Huw Edwards as the book of Ecclesiastes. It is a passage from the Apocrypha rather than the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, read a slightly modified form of the English Standard Version of Jn 11:21-27, stumbling slightly over its words both here and later in the service, a passage interpreted later by Huw Edwards as teaching steadfast faith, omitting its more obvious teaching about Jesus being the Resurrection and the Life. An abridged and modified form of Ps 104 was sung and then the shortened version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11, to which there were ambiguous Responses that may or may not be interpreted as prayers for the dead: “Grant unto him eternal rest. And let light perpetual shine upon him”, although ‘him’ could be interpreted as referring to oneself as the servant of the Lord.
Prayers for the dead
However, Welby picked up the theme in his following prayer in which, praying for Prince Philip he said: “To him, with all the faithful departed, grant thy peace; Let light perpetual shine upon them”, which is clearly praying for the dead, as if such prayers will make the slightest difference to the dead.
The Dean of Windsor then followed suit in his prayer: “God save our gracious Sovereign and all the Companions, living and departed, of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of The Garter. Amen.” Then, praying for the departed Duke, he added: “grant unto him the assurance of thine ancient promise that thou wilt ever be with those who go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters.” Not only is this a clumsy conjunction of the Duke’s interests with biblical phraseology, but why is he praying to God for the Duke’s “assurance of thine ancient promise”. 1. The Duke’s departed spirit does not need such prayers. 2. Besides, there is no “ancient promise that thou wilt ever be with those who go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters”. This clumsy reference to Ps 107:23 makes a completely different point and it is not a promise to mariners.
So our two ecclesiastical officials were praying for the dead.
As if this poor theology was not enough, the Archbishop of Canterbury showed us the need for training in plain English. He followed on: “O Lord God, when thou givest to thy servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same unto the end, until it be thoroughly finished, which yieldeth the true glory; through him, who for the finishing of thy work laid down his life, our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Amen.’ Was such a long and convoluted sentence intended to give an impression of profundity, or what?
The Anthem then followed the same unbiblical theme: “Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy Saints: where sorrow and pain are no more; neither sighing, but life everlasting.” One may interpret this as a request concerning oneself, but the context is plainly death, a Russian Kontakion of the Departed and appears to be another prayer for the dead.
Speaking to the dead
As the coffin was lowered into the Royal Vault, the Dean of Windsor addressed a dead body. “Go forth upon thy journey from this world, O Christian soul,” he said to a dead body, whose soul had long ago departed this world by at least eight days. “May thy portion this day be in peace, and thy dwelling in the heavenly Jerusalem. Amen.” What does this mean? 1. Why ‘this day’? He died eight days before. 2. does the Dean express a pious wish or does he really believe that he has some priestly power to bestow some peace that the Duke did not hitherto have?
The Archbishop of Canterbury pronounced his benediction, praying God to “grant to the living grace, to the departed rest, …” continuing the theme of praying for the dead as if it would make the slightest difference to them, and expecting God to give rest to all the dead, begging the question why they need to bother with Christianity.
The Duke of Edinburgh added yet a final piece of spice to the occasion, not simply having a Lament played by the Pipe Major of The Royal Regiment of Scotland but following it up with the Buglers of the Royal Marines sounding the Last Post, who then, with a final twist, concluded with “Action Stations”! the Duke’s last call to his mourners, that there is still a life to live and to get on with it.
The National Anthem was then sung, but hardly with greater poignancy in the Queen’s long reign, following the loss of her husband and companion, the longest-serving Royal Consort in the British monarchy, and the oldest Knight of the Garter in its history. Having such a long-reigning sovereign is rare and Queen Elizabeth II has almost reached the 70-year-reign noted in Isa 23:15, reaching her 95th birthday in two days’ time.
The Dean of Windsor had begun the service, commenting about Prince Philip: “We have been inspired by his unwavering loyalty to our Queen, by his service to the Nation and the Commonwealth, by his courage, fortitude and faith. Our lives have been enriched through the challenges that he has set us, the encouragement that he has given us, his kindness, humour and humanity. We therefore pray that God will give us grace to follow his example.”
So following the Duke’s example, who spoke his mind, and encouraged by his courage and fortitude, let me give my assessment. Contrary to Huw Edwards’ assessment that the funeral had been “so powerful in its simplicity”, but taking a lead from his comment that “there will be some talk inevitably about the elements of the service itself”, I have given my assessment of these elements. Having correcting Edwards’ mistaken reference to “the great reading from the book of the Preacher, Ecclesiastes”, and his describing the reading from the Gospel of John as “a short reading but a reading that delivered one message and that was to be of firm faith, of robust Christian faith, and to confront the doubts of faith head-on, very much in keeping with the Duke’s own philosophy”, let me take courage from the Duke’s philosophy to have a firm and robust Christian faith and give my assessment.
Prayer to God should not be weasel words to please the listeners, and certainly not unbiblical in theology.
Prayer is not preaching. Important features of the Gospel were contained as didactic statements in the public prayers, but there was no Gospel conveyed to the watching millions around the world. We were shown the beliefs and opinions of the officials, some of them unbiblical, and an analysis of these prayers could be interpreted as exclusive to Christian believers, begging the question where was the intercession for, or even participation by, the global audience seeking to join in the occasion?
The focus of prayer at a funeral is not for the soul of the departed but to seek God’s blessing upon the grieving family, friends and acquaintances who have experienced a great loss. There are elements of memorial and remembrance, for the context is shaped by the departed, and this was seen in the Duke’s magnificent ceremonial for the occasion. However, when it comes to the worship of God – praise and prayer to Him, and reading His Word to us – in a two-way communion that leads to fellowship with our God, Who alone can give the lasting comfort that the bereaved need, we must listen to His direction, and not rely upon earthly priests but upon the great High Priest Who has passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, the one Mediator between God and man 1Tim 2:5.
As for the Gospel, my readers can hear it here.
1 May 2021: the former bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali accuses the Church of England of replacing the Christian Gospel with Critical Race Theory.